White Canadians—what was here before us?
If you don’t want to think about it, close this tab and it’s likely no one will ever bring it up again. But if you’re at all interested in ancient cultures—the one we’ve spent 250 years destroying is fascinating. If you’re at all interested in human rights—the people we oppress could use some. And if you’re at all interested in common courtesy or compassion, consider that our country’s existence is the geopolitical equivalent of showing up uninvited to a house party, screaming that the house is yours now, and then giving the homeowners permission to sleep in one corner and eat a tiny fraction of their own food. Now wouldn’t that be rude?
On Canada Day yesterday, I decided to hide from the drunken crowds (what I now do on every typically drunk holiday) and spend the afternoon in a museum. I had the privilege of seeing UBC’s Museum of Anthropology, which currently houses an exhibit called “c̓əsnaʔәm: the city before the city”. Through art, photos, and oral testimony of Musqueam people, the award-winning exhibit “brings a critical history of city building, colonialism and dispossession, museum collecting practices, and Indigenous activism to public audiences.”
A Heiltsuk mask eating an oil tanker at MOA. The sign said Heiltsuk people are of “one mind, one heart” in opposing Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline.
The exhibit tells the story of the 9,000-year-old civilization that existed here before white people floated up, paved some roads and called it Vancouver—begging many questions, most importantly: why have I never thought about this before? As a child I went on a few field trips to see long houses but was taught that it was history. How things changed and what happened to the people who lived that way wasn’t discussed. In high school I heard the term “residential schools” once or twice, but I never understood the impact of destroying a culture, and the word genocide certainly wasn’t used. It’s hard not to think that it’s on purpose, that it’s easier for the government to exploit Native peoples and their resources if white Canadians remain ignorant.
We can’t move toward solutions without understanding the problem, which is what was so remarkable about the c̓əsnaʔәm exhibit. Throwing money at native groups (not that we do that anyway) won’t bring back the species we’ve made extinct, the sacred burial grounds we’ve built condos on, or the pristine waters that used to sustain an entire society.
Twelve art pieces by Cheyenne and Arapaho artist Edgar Heap of Birds ask UBC students to rethink what “British Columbia” means.
It goes back to my original question, what was here before us? There are hints, but only if you’re looking for them. At UBC, the campus is spotted with 12 signs that read BRITISH COLUMBIA backwards, followed by the phrase “today your host is” and one of 12 Indigenous bands. Our hosts, wouldn’t that be a nice way of thinking about it?
What struck me most about the exhibit was the generosity and graciousness of the Musqueam people interviewed. “We still welcome everyone with open arms,” one woman said. “You are guests here,” another man said. Indeed, we are guests in this country. It’s high time we started acting like it.
In Musqueam culture, when someone dies, their spirit remains. Photo from the c̓əsnaʔәm site.